by Jarrah Hodge
Women’s Forum des Femmes kicks off in the Government Conference Centre just across from Parliament Hill, with Official Opposition Critic for Status of Women Niki Ashton welcoming us “fellow feminists”.
I can tell it’s going to be an awesome day. The room is full of over a hundred women from diverse backgrounds, but a large portion are young women. Ashton announces most of the people speaking today (like me, later in the afternoon) will be Canadian feminists under 40.
Ashton characterizes the situation facing young women in Canada, saying young women are working hard but losing ground. Especially young indigenous women, says Ashton.
But she also says young women are responding: “Young women are using the arts, scholarship, the blogosphere and their voices to fight back.”
“Idle No More is a clear example of how indigenous young people, and particularly young women are changing Canadian history,” she adds.
She finishes her introduction with an outline of the day’s goal: “to build solidarity and strengthen our connections, and in doing so we will send a message that women across generations, regions, and communities are strong in their demands for justice and equality for all of us.”
The first speaker up to the stage was the amazing Erin Marie Konsmo of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. Her talk is called Beyond a Triple Bottom Line Approach: Reclaiming for our future generations: Resisting Environmental Violence Through Reproductive Justice.
Konsmo began to elaborate on a theme that will be touched on throughout the day: the interconnectedness of struggles for control of land and control of bodies, particularly women’s bodies. She said the Canadian government and extractive industries have often seen women’s bodies and land as empty things available for laws to be put on.
“Our bodies are not terra nullis [empty land],” Konsmo stated
“I propose a new equation. We must have self-determination of our bodies and also self-determination of our lands,” Konsmo proclaimed.
The interconnectedness of colonial exploitation of land and women’s bodies has a long history, including forced-sterilization of First Nations people and sexual abuse in residential schools. Because indigenous women live with the legacy of colonial violence and appropriation of land, Konsmo says violence prevention and sexual health strategies must include discussions of the land.
To conclude her talk she highlighted some of the unique ways indigenous women and youth are connecting the discussions about liberating the environment and their bodies. NYSHN’s Environmental justice for Metis Women and Youth program, for example, uses sexual health education and the arts to talk about how reproductive violence is connected to the environment.
She also talked about work to support indigenous youth who are two-spirited, queer, trans or gender non-conforming, who face immense amounts of violence, to develop leadership positions in their communities.
“As a young indigenous woman I know that many body contains story of the land…I also know and experience a sexual and gender identity that comes from specific histories of the land and where I come from. These identities are older than the LGBT movement and…were made illegal…your feminisms do affect the land,” she reminds, and adds, “The work you do as a feminist…impacts indigenous people.”
The next panel looked at “Canada’s Inequality Action Plan”, and included moderator Karen Galldin, Shannon Phillips of the Alberta Federation of Labour; Janice Makokis, a lawyer and Idle No More activist; Denise Hammond of the union AMAPCEO; and Sarah Kennell of Action Canada for Population and Development.
Shannon Phillips kicked off with a discussion of how focusing on the tar sands hurts women.
“You rip it out, ship it out in its rawest form, extracting as little value as you can…as quickly as possible because time is running out politically and ecologically,” she said, defining the current industry and government standpoint.
She said we need to have a national conversation about the oil sands because it affects all of us.
“We have an economic crisis in the making when we put all our eggs in this basket. For every job gained in the petroleum sector we have 30 jobs lost in the manufacturing sector,” she stated.
Phillips said the last thing Canadian women should want is for other places to be more like Alberta, which has the largest gender pay gap in the country, the largest income gap between rich and poor, and the lowest rates of spending on things like childcare.
Next, Janice Makokis talked about how she got active and involved with the movement for indigenous rights, Idle No More. She talked about hearing about last year’s Conservative omnibus budget bill:
“It was scary to read over 400 pages of a bill with over 35 pieces of legislation in that, and two of those pieces impacted directly on indigenous people…changes to the Navigable Waters Act and the Indian Act.”
But more frightening, she said, was that it seemed nobody was talking about it. But within only about a week, Facebook chatter and an Idle No More hashtag and Facebook page turned into a global movement, “and all of that was led by women.”
Makokis highlighted that of the four women founders of Idle No More, three were indigenous and one was not.
“This movement isn’t just an indigenous thing; it’s an everybody thing,” she stated.
Makokis also talked about how the Idle No More founders sought the advice of elders, and were told to bring back old indigenous laws based on respect for the land and the revitalization of a “warrior woman society.
“Our constitution is unwritten and it’s found out on the land…bringing back the essence of what the land does to give us life,” Makokis explained.
The warrior women ceremonies had died out in the 1950s because colonial settler laws had barred many indigenous ceremonies from being practiced. That meant that indigenous women went from the centre of First Nations government structures to the margins.
Makokis says one of the Idle No More Goals is to restore women to their traditional place as respected law-keepers.
Next, Sarah Kennell looked at the way the Conservative government’s policies are hurting women in the developing world. She drew attention to the fact that Canada’s payments for international aid have fallen so we now rank 14th among developed countries. The cuts, she said, have had the most detrimental impact on women and children abroad.
She also called the government out for its hypocrisy talking about protecting victims at home while being unwilling to support access to abortion for child brides and war rape victims overseas. Kennel urged audience members to work to keep these stories front and centre, even while the media and much of the public’s attention might be distracted by the Senate scandal.
Finally, Denise Hammond critiqued the way government has supported capitalist policies that hurt young women particularly.
“We are plagued by contract labour, temporary, precarious jobs…inequality for women didn’t start with Harper but some of the policies…have shifted the ground beneath us,” Hammond argued.
She called out the Harper government for directly attacking women’s economic equality, from eliminating gender pay equity laws to a concerted attack on unionized workers that would result in more precarious work.
“From 2006 to 2008 the Harper government spent more money on buying helicopters for the war in Afghanistan…than how much it would cost to make post-secondary education in this country free,” Hammond pointed out.
Hammond said we have to be careful not to fall into Harper’s trap by attacking unions and unionized workers, because that will re-create the narrative he wants and make it harder to fight for things like equal pay for women and an end to homophobia and transphobia in the workplace.
“Unions and good jobs are not the economic problem,” Hammond firmly stated.
After the panel, the conference broke for lunch. Stay tuned for Part II of this post, where I’ll talk about some of the afternoon programming.